Thursday, March 15, 2012

St. Patrick’s Gravestone: A Bigger fake!

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St. Patrick's gravestone in 1900
I hadn’t intended to write anything for this blog specifically about St. Patrick or St. Patrick’s Day. However, I happened to read the rather excellent post about the death and burial of ‘Ireland’s Patron Saint’ by Cultural Heritage Ireland [Facebook Page | Twitter]. The post quotes the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters’ account of the death, burial, and battle over the body of Patrick, followed by its eventual burial at Dun-da-leth-glas (Fortress of the Two Broken Fetters), modern Downpatrick. It is well worth a read! The post even includes a photograph of St. Patrick’s grave. Specifically, it is the photograph of the grave that prompted me to write, as it reminded me of my own first encounter with the Saint on his home turf.

Ceremony at the graveside in 1998
For many inhabitants of Northern Ireland, and the Downpatrick area in particular, ‘Paddy’s Day’ will not be complete without a visit to the saint’s grave. In 1998, with this in mind, I tagged along with a QUB Archaeology Society tour that visited the site – the only time I have managed to get to Downpatrick on the day. By the time we got to the town and climbed the hill to the Cathedral there was a religious ceremony in progress at the grave. On a slight eminence in the graveyard, to the south of the Cathedral building there was an assembly of clerics and dignitaries, dressed in their robes and finery, being filmed for the local news. Eventually, this group dispersed and we got to examine the graveslab for ourselves. Although still strewn with rather wilted daffodils, the name "Patric" was clearly visible as was the Latin cross with decorated, D-shaped terminals. This stone exuded Early Christianity. Like, perhaps thousands, of visitors before me, standing there I experienced a tangible frisson of connection between myself and the distant past.

This was seriously cool.
This was the place where St. Patrick was buried.
This was …
… nearly heartbreaking to discover that it’s a fake!

St. Patrick's gravestone in 1998
Yes, folks … it’s a fake! Even now I find it slightly shocking that the grave of St. Patrick is not what it appears to be. Admittedly, it is not a ‘fake’ in the sense that it cynically sets out to deceive, but it is a ‘fake’ nonetheless. It does not originate in any century even approximating to the death of the saint. Nor can it be said to definitely mark the exact location of his final resting place. As I found out later, this ‘fraud’ was perpetrated by no less a figure than Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) [see also: here and here], Belfast-born lawyer, antiquarian and promoter of all things Irish. In January 1900, as editor of the revived second series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, he published the following note:

F. J. Bigger
“The editor is pleased to be able to state that all arrangements have now been made for placing a suitable monument over the reputed grave of Saint Patrick in the cathedral yard at Downpatrick. Thousands of people visit this spot every year, and view with regret its neglected condition. This will now be remedied. The memorial takes the shape of a large natural slab of granite from the Mourne mountains, which will completely cover the site. Upon its surface will be incised an early Celtic cross, and the name "Patric" in Irish characters. This will be in keeping with the century in which the saint died. All parties are contributing to the work, which will entail considerable expense. Subscriptions for this object should be sent to the editor, who will give a full account and a sketch of the slab, together with a list of the contributors, in a subsequent number of this journal. When the town cross of Downpatrick was restored, a few years ago, the necessary sum was subscribed and expended by the editor, and he feels assured a similar result will ensue in the present instance, although a much larger sum is required.” (Bigger 1900a).

Design for carving on gravestone
Things must have moved swiftly indeed, as in April of the same year, Bigger was able to report that “The monument over the reputed grave of our National Saint at Downpatrick has now been completed.” (Bigger 1900b). The paper goes on to report that a stone, weighing several tons, was moved from Stieve-na-Iargie, near Castlewellan, Co. Down. The cross carved on the flat, upper surface of the stone was modelled on one from a 6th or 7th century gravestone, discovered by Bigger at Inchcleraun Island, on Lough Ree in the river Shannon. Only the name ‘Patric’ was added as there are no definite dates of birth or death for the Saint. Even moving the block was no small task. Bigger notes that it took twelve men fourteen days to move the stone “from its original site to the country road.” The whole operation, including moving the stone, setting it in concrete, and having it carved, cost £45. While he was initially worried that the public subscription to the fund would not meet this amount, the final total raised was £47 14s 0d. Bigger was also keen to acknowledge that the sources of the money came from ‘all creeds and classes and many different quarters’ – a true cross-community endeavour. Architectural advice was provided by W. J. Fennell, and the Downpatrick building firm, S. & T. Hastings, carried out the work. During the preparation of the ‘grave site’ three fragments of a broken cross were recovered. Although searches were carried out to recover further portions, they were in vain. Bigger notes that the fragments were placed in the cathedral for safe-keeping, until such time as more pieces could be located and a reconstruction attempted.

Portions of cross found during clean-up
While Bigger was involved in many aspects of, what we would now term, cultural heritage, his involvement with the grave of St. Patrick appears to have left a lasting impression in the minds of his contemporaries. In his lifetime, he was a committee member of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club; he revived and edited the 2nd series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology; he sat on the Executive Committee of the Gaelic League; he founded the Belfast College of Irish; he was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, to name but a few. However, in his obituary in the Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, it is the erection of St. Patrick’s gravestone that the anonymous writer chose to mention first.

This St. Patrick’s Day, if you can’t stay away from the green beer, raise a glass to St. Paddy himself. But spare a thought, too, for the man who helped promote and protect the Saint’s possible last resting place: here’s to Francis Joseph Bigger – may his ‘fake’ gravestone continue to stand as a timeless and eloquent memorial to Ireland’s patron Saint, and may it continue to inspire and touch future generations, filling them with an appreciation of our shared heritage.

Bigger, F. J. 1900a ‘Miscellanea: grave of Saint Patrick’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology 6.1 (2nd Series), 59.

Bigger, F. J. 1900b ‘The grave of Saint Patrick’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology 6.2 (2nd Series), 61-64.

Volume 6 of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology is available, along with most of the 1st and 2nd series, to download as a PDF from Similarly, the Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Ulster are also available. A slightly annotated catalogue of the 1st series of UJA is also available on my personal website: here. It is hoped to add similar resources for the 2nd and 3rd series in the near future.

There is another blog post by Cultural Heritage Ireland on one of the earliest representations of St. Patrick on the cover of the Domhnach AirgidhereI also recommend the article in the Irish Times on the botanical problems and historical vicissitudes of the shamrock. Know Thy Place have a post about Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, and its place in both Christian and Pagan observance. Finally, there's an interesting piece by Rt. W. Bro. Robert T Bashford on the importance of St. Patrick as a symbol and inspiration within Irish Freemasonry.

2013 additions:
Check out Vox Hiberionacum's excellent blog post, comparing the realities of St. Patrick and the enduring myths: here.

The gravestones from Inchcleraun Island, and their adventures (including being smuggled to the United States and being the focus of a joint FBI/Garda sting operation) is chronicled in a truly gripping paper by Paolo Ciuchini: here.

2014 additions:
vox hiberionacum:
Less DA Binchy Code, Please… St Patrick’s Origins: In His Own Words (1) and (2)

The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [1], examining Patrick's sources of finance - absolutely excellent read! Part 2 is a similarly good read!

Voices From the Dawn VR Tour of the gravesite: here.

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  1. a great article on the gravestone of st patrick

  2. Very interesting! Bigger is one of those larger than life characters of the late 19th/early 20th century who made important contributions to the antiquarian/archaeological record. His erection of the 'fake' gravestone is a reminder of why it's important for us to know about these people. He reminds me of Lord Walter Fitzgerald with all the work he did for the Kildare Archaeological Society (writing and editing the journal, re-erecting the Moone High Cross etc).

  3. Bigger, definitely larger than life!
    He was a wonderfully enthusiastic character, with boundless energy and ingenuity, but somewhat archaeologically destructive, and not just by modern standards either. He achieved the doubtful distinction of having one of his church 'restorations' condemned and disowned by the Ulster Archaeological Society. (Senior moment about which church - Ardtole? Raholp? help!!)
    I used to feel my heart sink when I was researching a site for NISMR and found out it had been 'Biggared' about.